Urgent Optimism Approach Makes Change Possible

You know how some gamers just can’t seem to quit. Even when they keep losing the same level over and over…and over again. Why do they waste so much time on a level they can’t seem to beat? Well, it’s actually not a waste of time. They’re actually getting better, gaining skills and “leveling-up.” As with many things in life, progressing through a game comes with almost guaranteed failure. Yet the passion to try over and over again in pursuit of a win is incredibly potent within the gaming community. They demonstrate a nearly unmatched perseverance considering an equally unmatched number of failures. They remain optimistic at the opportunity to succeed. This lesson in grit and perseverance is vital for any creative endeavor, or truly, any path towards success. You must have an uncanny willingness to try, explore, fail and be confident that it will ultimately lead to victory.

Bello argues, neoliberalism continues to punctuate the lexicon of policymakers with their emphasis on free trade, the central role of private enterprises, and a minimalist role for the state. The seeming failure of the present economic paradigm has brought a wave of detractors from all sides, even from among the staunch supporters of neoliberalism. Studies undertaken in recent years by various academics and institutions provide empirical evidence suggesting that neoliberal global capitalism (also known as globalization) or simply capitalism has failed to deliver what it has been preaching for the last two decades. Neoliberalism, by contrast, views life as ceaseless struggle. Agents vie for scarce resources in antagonistic competition in which every individual seeks dominance. This political theory is codified in non-cooperative game theory; the neoliberal citizen and consumer is the strategic rational actor. Rational choice justifies ends irrespective of means. 

The neoliberal project is founded on – and acts upon – the assumption that the average citizen is too confused and ignorant to really know what’s best for society or themselves. With respect to “fake news”, the common practices of social media “sharing” constitute an emerging practice that makes one an especially favorable target for neoliberal strategies of social control. A willful hostility toward established knowledge has emerged on both sides of the political spectrum, one in which every opinion on any matter is as good as every other. The historian Jennifer Burns has this wonderful insight when she describes Ayn Rand as ‘the ultimate gateway drug to life on the right’ – justifying a certain picture of the world is learned at a very early age, that leads them down the path to narcissism. Because the current culture gives them just enough to behave in ways that the neoliberals describe as being the ideal entrepreneur of the self, confusing freedom with imaginary lack of constraint, and so on and so forth.

The concealing aspects of neoliberal ideology are not accidental (i.e. not simply errors) but relate systematically to a set of social and cognitive interests of the elites. Neoliberalism refers to the state of the world wherein almost every aspect of human existence has in some way impacted or controlled by contemporary relations of capital, meaning that global capitalism has achieved governance. Neoliberals, recognizing their waning control of their ideology over the working class, are in the process of replacing it with data points from social media (i.e. Cambridge Analytica). By developing a psychological profile using Facebook likes it is possible to develop algorithms to control and manipulate targeted populations for political purposes. Psychographic profiling of the electorate allows further segmenting of personality types into specific subgroups who are susceptible to precisely targeted persuasion messages attached to an issue they care about.

When stripped of their representational aspects, narratives in video games typically are essentially reproductions of life under neoliberalism, corresponding to the reality of controlled choices and participation. The games fetishize interactivity and glorify agency in the same way that neoliberal capitalism extols the virtues of freedom and deregulation. Galloway (2006) warns that “while it might appear liberating or utopian, don’t be fooled; flexibility is one of the founding principles of global informatics control”. The mobility afforded in the narratives work under this same principle, appearing as play but operating within the structure of informatic control. Furthermore, as games lure players in with greater promises of agency, active play, and nonlinear narratives, they are becoming increasingly better at subtly reinforcing the paradigm shift to a society of controlled flexibility. Narrative choice in video games becomes play that is exploited as a productive force for neoliberal plan, and as such is deeply linked to the systems of control that elites employ.

The question of who controls the text is answered by players as themselves, but this is a prevalent deception in place throughout the culture of trickle-down economics, as the control remains firmly in the hands of the author, the programmer, and the system itself (Aarseth, 1997; Galloway, 2006). Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter (2009) point to this illusion of free will as the most insidious means of control. It is when the subject of neoliberalism believes they have free will and are free from ideology that the inherent ideology is the most effective. The players rehearse the narratives of neoliberalism willingly, believing that they are in control and thus are at the greatest risk of being influenced. The individualism and imperialism of the Western world is apparent in these games as well, featuring the player as a notable wanderer who is able to advance through the ranks of any culture that they please, and conquer the world of the game through exploration.

The pervasiveness of networks, computers, and consoles in contemporary society means that neoliberal thought is plugged into culture in the home, during leisure time, and within personal space. As cultural expression functions as the new locus of identity, people become more deeply invested both intellectually and emotionally in the narratives of video games. Neoliberal capitalism heralds interactivity and agency as empowerment and participatory democracy, while hiding the underlying ideologies and systems of control at work within them. The society of control requires subjects whose identities are fluid and fluctuating, rather than stable. Desirable subject positions are also reinforced through language, media, and the production of meaning. Language organizes and orders subjectivity, while “the communications industries integrate the imaginary and the symbolic within the biopolitical fabric, not merely putting them at the service of power but actually integrating them into its very functioning”.1

Jane McGonigal promotes a solution applying urgent optimism. She is a best-selling author and director of game research and development at Institute for the Future, a non-profit think tank that helps people prepare for the future. Urgent optimism is the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success. The good news is urgent optimism is not a fixed personality trait. It changes throughout our lives and, crucially, it’s changeable – we can purposely build more of it through future imagination training. Urgent optimism means you are not losing sleep over worries about the future. Instead, you are stoked to get out of bed in the morning and do something about it. Your imagination literally switches from a first-person perspective, where you see the world from within your own body, to a third-person perspective where you experience your actions from an out of body vantage point.

An important part of genuine education is realizing that many of the things we think are natural and inevitable (and therefore should accept) are in fact conditioned (and therefore can be changed). The world doesn’t need to be the way it is; there are other possibilities. The now common idea that we can “check facts ourselves” is at best an illusion. The fact we can “look things up on the net” can give people the impression they understand something when in fact they are overlooking important domain-specific details, or are trusting the wrong sources. Jane McGonigal’s psychology around urgent optimism and how to look at the future, and to stay engaged in a difficult problem, harnessing reward activity to create our future offers answers of how to look at the future. By harnessing reward activity of gamers to map out necessary changes over the next ten years to address the difficult problems created by the existing austerity economic policies, it is possible to identify processes to improve social life.

Power is best seen as an invisible force linking individuals and actors, in a state of constant flux and renegotiation. There is a small group who have been made very wealthy by the existing system. Change is a threat to them. It is this group that loves its status quo so much that it sees its own change as an underhanded attack on its way of life. The debate is no longer how fast the ocean is rising, rather how fast will we rise to the occasion to introduce change. This is about introducing equality, justice and fairness so that it not just a perception, but a reality, that the system is no longer gamed for those at the top. To create change we must seek out ideas that make a difference. It is urgent to save globalization from the neoliberal mindset because globalization is reversible. Our outlook must have a sense of urgency as things never stop moving, and we must be optimistic as there is always opportunity.

With the increasing socioeconomic inequality, we recognize the need for change. Often we have to acknowledge that change is sometimes difficult or close to impossible. Empowerment happens when individuals and organized groups are able to imagine their world differently and to realize that vision by changing the relations of power that have kept them in poverty, restricted their voice and deprived them of their autonomy. While none of us can actually “see” the future, we can practice looking into the future and seeing what might be. The path forward is urgent optimism – a mindset that includes mental flexibility, realistic hope, and future power. Hope-reward feedback loop creates a vision of the future we can become. As we practice seeing many different crazy futures, we become more comfortable with the reality of continuous change, and we start to find hope in the possibilities that exist alongside the difficulties.

1 https://macsphere.mcmaster.ca/bitstream/11375/14395/1/fulltext.pdf

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